After the jump is a reasonably comprehensive chat between myself and Kirsten Schlewitz, who is undeniably SBN's most attractive Aston Villa blogger. We focus mostly on how Villa have changed since last year (Emile Heskey is apparently good now!). Miraculously I got through this all without being asked to do the dishes. Check out 7500 to Holte for more Villa coverage.
Graham: Let's start with Villa. How's Gerard Houllier switched things up since he's arrived?
Kirsten: Well, the most obvious thing is that Houllier is not rooted to a straight 4-4-2 like Martin O Neill was. Houllier has also pulled in players that were left on the bench under MON, most notably Luke Young and Nigel Reo-Coker, although to be fair Kevin MacDonald had them playing as well.
Graham: Right. Are there any players really overperforming since the new manager came in?
Kirsten: This feels like a lead in to get me talking about Emile Heskey...
Graham: I might also be talking about Stewart Downing
Kirsten: The buzz right now is all about Emile Heskey, possibly because the difference between his play last year and his play this year is noticeable with just a quick look. Downing's is the play much of England has been expecting for years. Is Heskey's play the inspiration of Houllier? Does he just enjoy being trusted? Did he make a vow to himself after the World Cup?
I don't know, and obviously just three matches is an awfully small sample size. But those three matches at least showed that Heskey deserves a chance to start going forward, particularly with Gabby out of commission
Graham: Ashley Young's been playing as a withdrawn forward in Villa's lineup, correct?
Kirsten: Yes, Ash is playing in the hole behind either Heskey, Carew or Agbonlahor
Graham: How's he looking there? He's spent most of his career with the club on the wings
Kirsten: He has, and that's also where he's playing for England. But it seems that Ash wants to be used more in that role. He's growing in confidence, and the talk about renewing his contract continues to get louder. On the other hand, much of his play still comes from the wings, so maybe he's not quite sure what he wants
Graham: So he's being spurred on to new heights? If you will? :)
Kirsten: oh ha ha. Don't get me (or Gareth) started on the Guardian's propensity to stir up Villa-related rumors
Graham: and where is Gabby Agbonlahor, anyway? An improved Emile Heskey doesn't really replace one of the most exciting strikers in the league. Did someone leave the barn door open only to see the little guy streaking off into the sunset or something?
Kirsten: Gabby's off trying to figure out who tapped him on the shoulder
No, he had groin surgery, and it's meant to be minor. I'm crossing my fingers that it doesn't turn out like a certain Chelsea player's "minor" surgery
Graham: Ok. Moving away from the topic of Frank Lampard's groin, upon which I'm sure you could linger for hours...
Kirsten: Chance would be a fine thing.
Graham: Marc Albrighton's been making some noise. He's got a bright future ahead of him, but how's he looking for this season?
Kirsten: Albrighton's a tricky one. I love his style, and if we can hang on to him, he'll be fantastic for Villa. But he's just not ready yet, and you can see that. Often his matches are of two halves, in which he becomes invisible in the second.
But with Ash not wanting to be a winger anymore, what to do? Houllier put Gabby on the wing for Albrighton, but Agbonlahor is past that. He's a striker, that's where he plays best.
The solution as I see is to either move away from the 4-4-2 (even the withdrawn forward) or to move Young back to the wing. And Albrighton can't start every game once that happens. Now if Ireland could just be squeezed in...
Graham: What's up with Ireland anyway? It seems as though whenever he's in the side, calamity strikes
Kirsten: I'd say calamity is an overstatement. He had a couple good moments against...ok, it was so long ago I forgot. The point is that he's not James Milner, he never will be Milner, and the team has to figure out a way to play with what they've got. Ireland will do fine in the center once we have a defensive midfielder who can actually pass the ball forward.
That midfielder is not Stiliyan Petrov
Graham: I know this is crazy, but why not Carlos Cuellar?
Kirsten: As a midfielder?
Graham: CDM is often less attacking than RB
Kirsten: The major problem with Carlos involves going forward, even if it is less than at right back. Let's keep him at the back for now. After all, we have an adequate midfielder in Nigel Reo-Coker. The issue is the fact that politics require that Petrov plays
Graham: and Ireland cannot play alongside him
Kirsten: He can't defend
Graham: Petrov or Ireland?
Graham: Sounds suboptimal. I imagine the increased workload the defence is shouldering is contributing to the huge spike in goals allowed? Villa were one of the best defensive units in the game last year. Matches against Chelsea aside, of course.
Kirsten: Shut it, meanie
Our defense is obviously not as good as it was last year. Petrov contributes to that, certainly, but also remember that three of our four on the backline were sidelined at the beginning of the season
James Collins is back and playing as well as last year. Carlos Cuellar returned and did well at center (not right!) back. Richard Dunne, well, that just makes me want to cry. He was one of our best players last year and he's clearly struggling. He's not fit at all.
Graham: I'm not done with you yet. What's your expected lineup and result for the game?
Kirsten: I just ran a search on Gabby and no one's mentioned him yet
So I'll assume he's not at full fitness, therefore:
I may have flipped around the middles
Graham: Ok. I'd like a prediction.
Kirsten: 3-1 Chelsea.
Graham: I like that answer.